At Ligny the battle raged, as Napoleon drew Blücher and Gneisenau’s reserves into the vicious fighting around the villages and farms that warded the front of the Prussian position.
The Battle of Ligny began on June 16, at just after 2 pm, with blue-clad columns of French infantry advancing, their bands playing and with banners waving, against the cordon of defended villages behind the Ligny Creek.
All day, the French hammered the Prussians, with villages and buildings frequently exchanging hands, the battle swinging first one way and then another. Artillery took its toll of both sides, but particularly so the French heavy guns upon the Prussians. The fighting was often at close-quarters, house-to-house, even amidst burning buildings; set alight by the heavy bombardments. Thirty-two years later, Captain Maduit of the Grenadiers of the Old Guard recounts the intensity of the fighting:
“Ligny… Consisted of hand-to-hand fighting that lasted for hours together; and with this was combined, not a fusillade and cannonade carried out at ranges of four or six hundred yards as occurred in most other battles, but these were replaced by point-blank discharges of musketry and canister fired at fifty yards range. At Ligny, more than 4,000 dead soldiers were piled in an area less in measurement than the Tuileries’ (Napoleon’s palace in Paris) garden; some three or four hundred yards square.”
After hours of fighting, Blücher was beginning to run out of reserves to throw into the fight. He and Gneisenau kept looking for Wellington to march down the Nivelles-Namur Road from Quatre Bras, or for the arrival on the opposite (east) flank for von Bülow’s IV Corps, marching hard to arrive on the battlefield (it would fail to do so that day).
Prussian guns pound French positions during Battle of Ligny
Across the field, Napoleon watched from his windmill perch near Fleurus, as the battle developed. By late afternoon the time was near for the final push that would see the Prussians streaming from the field.
The Emperor was unaware of the magnitude of the battle raging at the crossroads at Quatre Bras when he dispatched his second (3 pm) message to Ney (see Part Two). Shortly after this was sent, Napoleon received a message from the Comte de Lobau, commanding the VI Corps (still assembling in reserve at Charleroi) that Ney was engaged in a fierce fight at the crossroads and so could not be expected to attack the Prussian right as requested.
However, there was still Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Comte d’Erlon’s First Corps at Frasnes, in reserve behind Ney’s force. His plan to crush the Prussian right could still be realized, if d’Erlon’s 20,000 were to come immediately. Orders were dispatched for the General to march post-haste up the old Roman Road to the hamlet of Brye; and from there to assault the right-rear of the Prussian line .
Napoleon worded the order to d’Erlon with characteristic hyperbole:
“Monsieur le Comte d’Erlon, the enemy is falling headlong into the trap I have laid for him. Proceed immediately with all your forces to the heights of Ligny (at Brye) and fall on St-Armand (rightmost of the Prussian-held positions). Monsieur le Comte, you are about to save France and cover yourself with glory!”
All along the line, the battle raged. Napoleon only waited d’Erlon’s arrival on the right to make his final assault, this time with the Imperial Guard. The best soldier’s in Europe, they would penetrate the Prussian line just as d’Erlon was assaulting their right. The entire Prussian right would be pinched off and destroyed. Simultaneously, Marshal Grouchy on the right would press hard on Thielmann‘s Corps; while the reserve Cavalry Corps of Pajol, Exelman, and Milhaud cut through the routing Prussians and, riding toward Gembloux, “bag” the fleeing Prussians; perhaps even capturing Blücher and his entire staff.
But it all hinged on d’Erlon’s arrival.
D’Erlon received the order and immediately began marching his Corps towards the battle at Ligny. The head of his column was observed by the combatants on both sides in the distance at 5:30 p.m. No one could tell whose troops they were: French or Wellington’s Dutch-Belgians (many of which wore very similar uniforms to the French). Due to the Emperor’s poor handwriting (or Marshal Soult’s, Napoleon’s Chief of Staff) d’Erlon had taken the wrong road. Instead of arriving at Brye just west of the Prussian line, he was appearing further south, opposite the French left at St. Armand.
At St. Armand the men of General Dominique Vandamme’s III Corps were thrown into near-panic by this unexpected force on their flank. Vandamme hastily sent to Napoleon appraising him of this new threat. The Emperor was perplexed as well: this was not where he was expected d’Erlon to arrive; and the General was not expected before 6 p.m. in any case. Napoleon sent an aide riding west to identify this force, meanwhile delaying the attack by the Guard, in case these were Wellington’s Belgians.
Panic spread among the French III Corps, and newly-taken St. Armand was abandoned as Vandamme’s men began falling back. Blücher, observing this, incorrectly assumed that the new arrivals must be Wellington’s long-expected reinforcements. He therefore launched an attack by his last reserves upon Vandamme’s retreating forces.
Napoleon’s battle plan was unraveling before his eyes.
Then, just as quickly as they had appeared, the distant columns disappeared the way they had come!
It had indeed been d’Erlon’s I Corps, arriving earlier and at the wrong location, but almost in a position to join the battle. However, fate and the fury of Marshal Ney intervened in the eleventh hour, stopping and turning d’Erlon around again.
Back at Quatre Bras, the fiery Ney had flown into a fury when informed that the Emperor had stripped him of d’Erlon’s 20,000 reserves just as he was preparing a final push to break Wellington and fulfill the Emperor’s orders to clear the crossroads. He immediately sent an order to d’Erlon, who was after all assigned to his command, to turn about immediately and return. Ney in his anger failed to consider that by the time the I Corps returned to Quatre Bras it would be too late to be of any help. Worse, their brief appearance on the periphery of the Ligny battle had caused Vandamme’s men to panic and lose ground gained in bloody fighting earlier in the day.
Sadly, this mishandling of d’Erlon’s Corps, which marched back-and-forth taking no part in the fighting that day doomed both Napoleon and Ney’s engagements on the 16th to bloody and inconclusive slugfests. With insufficient forces at both battles, the French lost the opportunity to defeat one or both of the Allies then-and-there.
CLIMAX AT QUATRE BRAS
In the meantime, the Anglo-Allied army had been reinforced to some 29,000 men and 42 guns, and outnumbered Ney’s forces (three tired divisions of foot, some 18,000 at the start of the battle but now depleted by hours of fighting, along with 48 guns and just under 2,000 horse). Wellington was beginning to take the offensive on his left: the 95th Rifles and Kielmansegge’s 1st Hanoverian Brigade were ordered to attack from Thyle and take Piraumont farm buildings. At the same time, Halkett’s 5th Brigade of Alten’s division was moved to the center-right of the line, occupying the space between the Charleroi Road and the Bossu Wood; linking the defenders there with Picton’s Division in the tall rye to the east of the road.
Seeing Wellington moving against Bachelu’s 5th Division on his right, and needing time till d’Erlon could return Ney now decided to relieve pressure on Bachelu with a cavalry attack on Wellington’s right-center. There, Halkett’s Brigade had been commanded by Wellington’s Second-in-Command and their Corps Commander, the Prince of Orange to stand in line, rather than squares as Picton’s men were to their left.
During the Peninsula Campaign, Wellington’s infantry had won battle-after-battle by standing firm in line and delivering withering volleys upon oncoming French infantry columns. They had been able to do so, in part, because the French cavalry in Spain had never been as numerous (nor as well mounted) as what they were facing now, in Belgium. All day the French had menaced the Anglo-Dutch infantry before Quatre Bras with Lancers and Hussars. In response, Picton’s men were forced to remain in squares; safe from cavalry but perfect targets for Ney’s guns and the withering attrition-fire of the French skirmishers.
The 22 year old William Frederick, Prince Orange was a military dilettante who had served as an aide-de-camp in Wellington’s headquarters in Spain. He had been rapidly promoted due to his station, and now held the ranks of lieutenant-general in the British Army, despite never holding a combat command. But he had read his lessons, and fancied himself quite capable of handling troops in battle. Surely it was better to meet the French in line, as Wellington had proved in Spain, than huddling together in square, a formation that severely limited a battalion’s fire. As Wellington was planning an advance by Picton’s men on Gemioncourt farmhouse in the center, Halkett’s men could much better support that advance in line than square.
It was an unfortunate set of circumstances (or a stroke of luck for the French) that Orange made this decision just minutes before Ney decided to launch his cavalry assault on the Allied center!
Across the field, Ney turned to General François Étienne de Kellermann, commander of the III Cavalry Corps, whose cuirassiers were in reserve. Kellermann was perhaps Napoleon’s most capable heavy cavalry commander. At Marengo in 1800 he led the charge that won the day for Napoleon (ultimately making the latter Emperor of France). Now, Ney ordered him to repeat this famous feat of arms, and to charge the Anglo-Dutch infantry and break them.
General François Étienne de Kellermann, 2nd Duc de Valmy
Realizing that in his anger Ney had lost all judgment, Kellerman pointed out that he had but one of his four brigades on hand and that 1,000 horsemen, no matter how valiant or well led, could not break 25,000 men. But Ney was adamant, and the now equally furious Kellerman (a soldier who had never disobeyed an order) stormed off, resigned that if he was ordered to commit suicide, so be it!
Sword drawn, Kellerman led his sole brigade forward. As he said later recalled, “I made great haste so that my men would have no chance to shirk, or to see the full danger facing them”. The trumpet sounding the charge, the riders spurred forward at a gallop, sun glinting off helmets, cuirasses and raised swords. Suicide it might be, but glorious suicide nevertheless!
But as Kellerman led his steel-clad riders thundering out of the tall rye to either side of the Charleroi Road, his horsemen saw with astonished glee that the red coated British battalions of Halkett’s Brigade were still in line formation. Though the rye gave some cover to the coming onslaught, the thundering of 4,000 hoofs gave sufficient warning for some of Halkett’s battalions. The 30th and 33rd Regiments of foot succeeded in forming hasty squares, and the cuirassiers swirled past them.
The 69th Regiment of Foot was not so fortunate.
Confusion in orders had one company still in line while others attempted to form the walls of the square. The result was disaster, as cuirassiers burst through the regiment, cutting men down and wresting the King’s Colors from the guard whose job it was to protect it. The survivors fled into the nearby Bosse Woods, seeking refuge.
The 33rd found only temporary respite: exposed on a knoll, the regiment found itself the target of the Horse Artillery battery attached to Kellerman’s Brigade. Raked by canister fire, the soon broke and fled into the woods as well. The adjacent Second Battalion 73rd Regiment of Foot, witness to the carnage inflicted upon its neighbors, panicked and fled as well!
Riding over the bloody detritus of Halkett’s Brigade, the cuirassiers thundered on to the crossroads. An astonishing feat of arms, they had penetrated clean through the center of Wellington’s army. Kellerman’s advance had been so rapid, Ney was unprepared to follow it up with either Piré‘s 800 lancers and hussars or the infantry of Foy’s Division.
Sketch made at the time of the Quatre Bras battle. Beyond the “X” formed by the crossroads (Quatre Bras Inn is to the left, foreground) smoke rises from the British squares formed by Picton’s battalions, assaulted by French cavalry.
As the cuirassiers charged through the wreck of Halkett’s Division, Wellington was once again forced to find refuge within the square of the 92nd, to the rear. From there he directed fire upon the cuirassiers by surrounding regiments. Kellerman’s horse was shot out from under him, and the general only avoided death or capture by grabbing onto the stirrups of riders on either side of him, allowing himself to be carried to safety.
The victorious survivors rode back the way they had come, having covered themselves in glory. Their retreat was covered by Piré’s light horse, which veered to the right and kept Picton’s still intact battalions occupied. The lancers again savaged the squares from out of the tall rye again, but none broke.
By 6:30 p.m. more of the British Guards arrived from the west. They were thrown into the Bosse Wood, to help their fellows against Prince Jérôme’s Division, which had succeeded in setting up guns on the southwest edge of the wood and firing upon the Nivelles Road. At this point Wellington’s position was strong, and he began pushing south all along the line. Ney pulled his forces south of Gemioncourt, and by 8:30 both sides were back where they had started at noon.
The fighting at Quatre Bras was over. Wellington had lost 5,000 men, and though he still held the crossroads, he had been unable to aid his Prussian ally, as he’d promised. Ney had failed in his given objective, to clear the crossroads and come to Napoleon’s aid. However, he had kept Wellington from aiding Blücher, and that was worth something.
A HOLLOW VICTORY AT LIGNY
Meanwhile, 6 miles to the east at Ligny, that battle had reached a dramatic conclusion.
Vandamme restored order to his corps and successfully held the Prussian counter-attack on the French left. By attacking here in force, Blücher had expended his final reserves. Napoleon decided that with-or-without help from Ney he needed to act decisively. Time was not his friend, as dark would allow the Prussians to either retreat intact or (if Von Bülow arrived as expected) be reinforced. It was time to throw in the Guard, and break the Prussians.
A fierce cannonade by the heavy guns of the Guard Artillery and the IV Corp’s artillery reduced the villages and farm buildings along the Ligny Creek to blazing ruin. Within the fires the heart-rending screams of the wounded trapped within could be heard over the sounds of musketry and cannon. With drums beating the pas-de-charge, two massive columns, each spearheaded by a battalion of the Old Guard, advanced against the Prussian center-left. The left-most column was supported by Napoleon himself, at the head of the Guard Heavy Cavalry (“The Gods”), the right-most column by Milhaud’s Corps of Cuirassiers.
This video captures the terrible pageantry of the French attacks during the Waterloo Campaign. The music is accurate from the period; including the pas-de-charge beaten on the drums by underage drummer boys. Though chiefly from “Waterloo” (1970), it includes clips from the BBC’s “Sharpe’s Waterloo” (1997)
The most feared soldiers in Europe, the Guard smashed through the Prussian defenders. The Prussian center collapsed in rout, one that threatened to infect both wings of the Prussian line as well.
It was now Blücher’s turn to act. The 72 year old former Hussar now collected every available horseman still in the saddle, some 32 squadrons, and launched them at the Guard. Against lesser men this charge might well have sent the French reeling back in disorder if not downright rout. But the Imperial Guardsmen were all veterans of countless campaigns. They held their fire till the horsemen were at point-blank-range, then opened fire, doing terrible execution. The Prussians recoiled, and the Guard continued a slow, almost majestic advance in squares.
However, the appearance of their old general in their midst heartened the Prussians and stopped the flow to the rear.
Blücher’s close-call at Ligny: Pinned under his horse, he was helpless on the ground as his position was overrun by French cavalry. The passing French failed to notice him, and the Marshal recovered. But history would have taken a very different turn had Blücher been killed or captured that day at Ligny!
This charge very nearly proved personally disastrous for Blücher himself, who was nearly a casualty of his own valor: Leading the charging squadrons, his horse was shot from under him and the old Marshal found himself pinned beneath. Worse, Milhaud’s cuirassiers now counter-attached and scattered the Prussian horseman. Blücher and a lone aid found themselves isolated and alone, French armored horsemen riding past them. Fortunately for the Allied cause, in the smoke and gathering darkness Blücher’s presence was undetected. He was later found and rescued that night by a Prussian patrol.
Both wings of the Prussian army withdrew in the twilight gloom, leaving Napoleon holding the stricken field. The Prussians suffered 20,000 dead or wounded, and 20 guns. Another 8-10,000 dispirited Prussians soldiers deserted during the retreat the following day. The French had by contrast lost a mere 6,000 men, and held the field. A clear victory; but not the decisive one it could have been.
Beaten but not defeated, Blücher and his army escaped toward the northeast.
NEXT: NAPOLEON MARCHES ON TO WATERLOO
- This long straight sword was both awkward and badly made. Had Napoleon’s cuirassiers been armed instead with a lance, like the Poles, they might have been the most effective heavy cavalry in history.
- The British had faced French cavalry in Spain: Hussars, Lancers, and Dragoons. But as effective as any of these could be under the proper circumstances, none could compare for sheer bone-crushing power to the charge of the Gros Freres , the “Big Brothers”. Cuirassiers were recruited from the largest men and rode the largest horses. When they attacked they cantered forward, every man’s thigh touching that of his comrade to either side. Before contact they broke into furious gallop, long stabbing swords thrust forward. Their impact on infantry improperly formed to receive them was devastating. The British had not faced French cuirassiers in Spain and they made a lasting impression after meeting them on this campaign. Soon the British converted several of their heavy cavalry regiments into cuirassiers, including the Household Cavalry.